Mountainside Vineyard: St. Nazaire-de-Ladarez, France

My wife, Millie, lived in a tiny little village in France for a couple of years in her teens and we decided to visit some friends with whom she had remained in contact. Joseph and Adrienne, a Dutch couple recently celebrating their 47th Wedding Anniversary, have got to be among some of the nicest people I have ever had the privilege of meeting.

Driving into the village (which has a population of just 350 people), we were already running a few minutes behind, as I had been more cautious on some of the mountain edge-of-the-cliff sort of roads than the string of locals behind me would have liked. We pulled up outside the church, which had a very clean facade, almost looking new. Adrienne had arranged to meet us there as she could spot us from the Juliet balcony of a house they own in the village, which, I guess, they use for when friends or family come to visit them. Adrienne and Millie reunited and a few moments later, I emerged out of the car with our children. Adrienne welcomed me with a “bonjour” and a typically French three-kiss greeting and so when she began to speak I was surprised to hear a Dutch accent, which was only familiar to me as I have a Dutch colleague. We then walked  to Millie’s old house for her to have a look and reminisce. In the 100m we walked, Adrienne must have said hello to four or five locals who knew her. The village felt small, but very friendly. Adrienne suggested we take her car up to their home in the mountains as ours was white, which left me curious as to what sort of terrain we were going to encounter.

Adrienne drove us along some smooth roads, all heading uphill and I could feel my ears begin to respond to the change in altitude. We then went off-road, along a dusty, stony path that I later found out was originally used for the farmers to get to their vineyards by foot, and then by small tractors. The uneven, rocky road continued upwards with a few larger stones in the road that Adrienne navigated with no problem in her spacious Citroën. The views became more and more spectacular: olive trees dotted along to roadside, the uniform lines of vineyards stretched across the mountainsides and scatterings of towns in the distance.

Eventually we pulled up next to a 10-year-old Range Rover – a vehicle more suited for the terrain we had just experienced. Up a steep pathway we could see a couple of large dogs wagging their tails, running down to greet us. The pathway led to Adrienne’s stone-built home from where her husband, Joseph, came out to meet us. Joseph had white hair and a beaming smile. His voice was loud and welcoming; we felt right at home the moment he spoke. He was tall, slim and in shape: you could see his well defined calves as he walked up the path ahead of us. Later, we heard that Joseph had just celebrated his 70th birthday, but you would never have guessed by the way he spoke with such life and youthfulness.

Joseph, a former school headmaster, and Adrienne, once a midwife, had found and bought their 3.5 hectares of land in 1988. Conversations with a mason friend of his, and a passion to one day become self-sufficient drove Joseph to begin his ambitious task of building his own cabin home, stone by stone. His aim was to complete in 5 years, making the trip from Holland 4 times a year. With no regrets, Joseph explained that it took him about 18 years to complete. Every stone in the half metre thick walls was found on their land and laid by his own hands. The back wall of their home was originally built by Roman soldiers who were farmers back in Rome and were instructed to set up vineyards in their newly conquered lands. Walls were built to level the steep mountainsides, making it easier to grow their grapes. These walled sections resembled rice paddy fields we had seen in Thailand.

Joseph and Adrienne’s home is a beautiful mix of humble and magnificent. It is small – Joseph calls it a cabin. Inside is open plan, with a dining area, fully kitted-out kitchen, lounge, log burner and bed all situated almost within reach of each other, but it feels spacious. The floor has different levels, built to accommodate the large rock beneath their home which serves as it’s foundation. Some of that rock pokes through near the log burner. Joseph explained that he spent weeks trying to break down the rock to create a level floor, before a friend of his who lived in the village, an Englishman, had suggested creating these different levels. Their bed sits in the right hand corner of the cabin, raised much higher than most beds, again to accommodate the rock underneath. There are two steps up to the kitchen, which is to the left, and in the far left hand corner, another two steps to the bathroom door. Both kitchen and bathroom are equipped with running water that is provided partly by the rain, and partly by an underground river that flows well at certain times of the year. Electricity is provided by solar panels on the roof.

Our children were so happy to play with the dogs, Ramon (I’m not sure of the spelling) and Tibet, force-feeding them sticks and they love being outside, so the setting for them was perfect. As a result of this I was able to talk with Joseph for hours, asking him questions, sharing stories. We sat outside his house, where he had built a terrace. The shade it provided brought the temperature down from a scorching 45 degrees celsius in the sunshine to a comfortable 29. (Adrienne told us of a winter where it reached -10 degrees and they experienced over a foot of snowfall!) The terrace was a good size, with a quirky triangular table. The view was truly breathtaking. Mountains, vineyards, towns and even in the far distance, the Mediterranean sea. Cacti, trinkets and pot plants were all around, creating a wonderful transition between the nature of outside and the cosiness of indoors.

Joseph spoke about his dream to become self-sufficient and brought me on his journey from being a school headmaster to having to learn everything from planting trees to building his home. He recalled with great fondness his years of having goats who would kick-out if anyone else tried to milk them, individually named chickens who produced more eggs than he and Adrienne could eat or give away and the skill he developed to kill and skin the rabbits he reared. There were no animals around and Joseph explained that when his children had children of their own, he and Adrienne needed to make the decision to give his animals away so that he could regularly return to Holland to visit them. Having livestock would have restricted him from travelling and making the trip to their cabin was difficult for his children, especially with young babies. I could see the sadness in his face when he talked about having to give away all his animals, but also his joy when he spoke of his grandchildren.

Joseph and Adrienne are quite clearly still in love after all this time – something my wife and I aspire to be like as we continue down our journey of marriage. Joseph explained that there had been moments where he had to learn to understand that self-sufficiency was his dream, not Adrienne’s and so he needed to allow her to live her dream too. She was very happy for Joseph to pursue his self-sufficiency, but wanted her job to be keeping the home, not chasing animals and cultivating fields. Joseph’s handmade home displays a beautiful sign on the wall as you walk up the path to the house that announces ‘”Château” Adrienne’ – his stone-by-stone act of love is not just for his dream of independence, but a shrine to his wife. Adrienne loves to socialise more than Joseph, making regular trips down from their mountain home to the village to meet friends and have coffee. She and Joseph compliment each other wonderfully and told us that Adrienne loves surface chat with several people, whereas Joseph loves to get deep more on a one-to-one level, and they both help each other to balance out a little.

Joseph’s hobby is making wine. He has several vineyards, all in view from his home and from the grapes he is able to produce 800 litres of wine a year – that 1,100 bottles! He opened a full bodied red over lunch and told me that the farmer must have the first taste, to check his wine is good enough for his guests. It was great!

After lunch, Joseph took us around some of his nearest vineyards, quite happily letting our children eat grapes straight from the vine. Our children are absolute fruit monsters and were in their element! First, some very sweet Muscat grapes, which were a honey-yellow colour. Their sweetness meant they were pretty sticky, but they sure were tasty. Some of the bunches had dried grapes on them and Joseph told us that he thought the grapes had some sort of illness stopping them all from growing. He then took us a few steps lower to the red grapes. These all had a white powdery coating on them which, in my ignorance, I always assumed was some sort of pesticide on the shop bought ones we get in the UK. Joseph explained that it was yeast build-up on the skin of the grape. He cut another bunch from the vine for our children to eat. Joseph and Adrienne grow several different types of grape that allow them to make a variety of wines.

He explained the whole process from grape to glass for me; from crushing the grapes so that the yeast can mix with the sugar; the 2-3 week fermenting process; pressing the wine; storing it in small stainless steel vats; bottling and of course, drinking. He also explained the different process for white wines. I asked whether he sold the wine, guessing that he would have struggled to get through 3 bottles a day and still manage to keep his farm in good nick! Joseph preferred to give his wine away, considering the three other vineyard owners in the village who make a living from their wine, not wanting to take business away from them. He really has bought in to the lifestyle for the love of it. On the outside wall to the terrace is displayed the words “MON RÊVE” – my dream, and Joseph truly lives and loves his dream.

Adrienne cooked a lovely pasta dish for our children for their dinner. By the evening they both looked pretty feral, having spent most of the day playing bare-foot in the dusty, sun-scorched ground. Adrienne’s gentle nature was so visible in the way she washed our children’s feet so they could put on their shoes before we made our way back to our car in the village. Milo was harbouring a couple of blisters from a new pair of shoes that were rubbing and she patched them up with a plaster, along with his knee he had grazed that afternoon. Our daughter, Aspen, was keen to get involved in the Elastoplast/Band Aid sponsorship deal and so managed to find a couple of old grazes too! Adrienne made a big deal of them and patched them up, making little 2-year-old Aspen’s day.

I have to admit, I was sad to say goodbye to Joseph as we made the bumpy journey back down the mountain with Adrienne. Their incredible home, life journey, lifestyle and above all, generosity and kindness has truly made a mark on my heart. Joseph and Adrienne are the sort of people the world needs more of and I hope to make the trip to visit them again, or to welcome them to our home in the not-too-distant future, to share more stories and to make another wonderful memory.

Joseph and Adrienne, thank you for the most wonderful day, for sharing your lives with us, for playing with our children and for being the lovely people you are. À bientôt!

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